May 24, 2013

Posted by in Literary Apologetics | 108 Comments

“Weird Fiction” and Christianity: Strange Bedfellows

Ever wonder where the word “weird” comes from? Ultimately it derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word “wyrd,” which basically meant “fate.” The original meaning is often still felt. As Michael Moorcock points out in the “Foreweird” (ha!) to a gripping new collection of stories, “should you mention a coincidence to someone, they are likely to respond ‘Weird!’” And indeed, over the centuries, the term has come to mean something more like, “strange,” or “uncanny,” or “bizarrely inexplicable.”

Enter, “Weird Fiction.”

This unique but somewhat amorphous genre includes writers like HP Lovecraft, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson, that great but lesser known Oxford Inkling Charles Williams, and more recently China Miéville and Haruki Murakami. It’s generally considered to have coalesced into a distinct species in the early 20th century. Its forebears are numerous, but in one strain they were folks like Poe, Hawthorne, and Stoker. And though its definition—much like some of its characters and plots—is shadowy, a great place to find a working definition is in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s recent anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (Tor, 2011).

IMAGE - The Weird - A Compendium

More than qualified to dispense a definition of this mysterious brand of fiction, the VanderMeers have—between them—a Hugo Award (basically the Pulitzer for sci-fi), a World Fantasy Award (basically the same thing for fantasy), seemingly countless anthologies of weird, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction to their names, and the former position of Editor-in-Chief at “the oldest fantasy magazine in the world,” Weird Tales. Starting at the fount—to many—of the modern form of this genre, they begin their introduction thusly: “A ‘weird tale,’ as defined by H. P. Lovecraft . . . is a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale.”

IMAGE - Weird Tales 1

That’s a great start, but it’s far from exhaustive. To fill out the idea, just a little more, here are some words and phrases the VanderMeers use—over the course of their introduction—in association with the content of weird fiction: “indefinable,” “maddeningly unreachable,” “beyond the mundane,” “unexplainable dread,” “malign and particular suspension . . . of fixed laws of Nature,” “unsettling,” “shadowy,” “unease,” “temporary abolition of the rational,” “intertwined with terror,” “strangely beautiful.”

Intriguing combination.

But that’s really only one side of it—atmosphere. The other side is this: “It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.”

Unlike Mystery Fiction proper, which often deals with the unknown but which usually settles on some known or at least knowable plane by the end, Weird Fiction leaves readers as uneasy and perplexed and astonished at the end of a story as it did at the beginning. Sometimes more so.

I love this kind of story. And I think one reason is because it makes fullest expression of what all fiction does by definition: It holds out a mystery, something you don’t know at the beginning, something unique, of interest, and it promises to take your hand and guide you through the search for answers. Ultimately, the engine of all fiction is mystery. Why do readers keep reading any story beyond the first sentence? If it’s not to answer the internal question, “What happens next?” it’s to explore the question, “How did this happen?” or, often the more mysterious, “Why?

But another reason I love this genre is because of the unexpected connection it has to something that seems so utterly far from it: classical Christian thought.

The big idea shared by weird fiction and Christianity is this: There’s much more to human existence, human nature, the universe, than meets the eye; there’s far more to reality than most of us see on the surface of everyday life. And both systems externalize their prophets’ visions of these realities in ways often designed—by necessity—to shock.

Weird fiction could perhaps also be called, Hyper-Real Fiction. One of the common efforts of the genre is to represent something about the universe, or, even more basic, reality, that’s too often not seen in its full potency. Our eyes, by comparison, are dull. They need an extremely sharp version of the image if they’re going to see it.

Take Lovecraft—whom I’ve examined here in detail before—and his fictive beasties: Primeval aliens with wings and tentacles protruding from mouths, gooey masses that fly around in the dark, blind pan-pipe players who sit in the middle of a swirling chaos. These inhuman creatures weren’t simple metaphors for some particular idea. They were meant to paint a picture of the general place mankind occupies in the vast, unfeeling cosmos of Lovecraft’s imagination. To communicate how the powers of the universe have no mind or will or morality behind them, but also how out-of-proportion mankind’s esteem of himself usually is, Lovecraft describes hideous monsters that could step on cities like ants and who “gaze down on us with indifference,” as Guillermo del Toro puts it.

This brings us to another question: Why is weird fiction also, very often, “horror” fiction? This is precisely where the link to Christian thought first becomes clear.

Whether it’s the ghostly, spooky horror of Algernon Blackwood, the Cosmic Horror of Lovecraft, or what you might call the subtle social horror of Flannery O’Connor, seemingly every author of the weird attempts to point out—or at least can’t help but see—the more horrific aspects of temporal human life, or of human nature itself. These are the realities most of us would simply rather ignore, because when we see them in full light they are—at best—disconcerting. Some weird fictioners take another route to the same end. They point out how we actually take some of these dark realities for granted, not really thinking of them as horrific at all—a mistake they’re trying to remedy.

Coincidentally (or not), the classical Christian system of expressing reality would like to remedy the same thing. And, at least in part, for the same reason.

Think of the way Jesus often operates when trying to make a point to some self-assured listener who thinks he sees reality pretty darn clearly, thanks. Famously addressing one crowd, Jesus instructs, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Ouch. Next he says, “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off”—once again, ouch—“and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Talk about weird.

The imagery Jesus uses here is intentionally unsettling. It’s violent, grotesque. It’s meant to disturb.

Granted, this isn’t exactly like weird fiction, as we know it. But the fundamental mechanism behind both approaches is the same: use extreme, off, and unsettling concrete particulars—whether imagery, plot, scenario, etc—to communicate some aspect of reality to listeners by way of shock, by way of discomfort.

The Christian vision of reality and weird fiction, both, see something far more off about our world, our lives, and us—in our present state—than most of us would like to admit. Flannery O’Connor claims much the same thing in her famous essay: “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” See an in-depth discussion of that, here.

“BUT WAIT A MINUTE!” the VanderMeers and Moorcock and many others will say, “What you’re doing is precisely what the weird rejects! Linking it so explicably to a really old, ubiquitous, codified system of thought. It’s so anti-weird you should be ashamed of yourself!” And I’d partly agree.

Yes, I’m linking weird fiction—as a mode of delving into complex realities—with the unique Christian understanding of the universe.

But what I’m also doing is trying to push, dare I say, disturb, many who believe the depths of Christian thought have been plumbed and found wanting into reexamining this “strangely beautiful,” yet paradoxically “intertwined with terror,” vision of the universe.

I’d like to unease all of us, myself included, into a fresher look at this ancient faith, in its ancient, raw, and mysteriously paradoxical form. It is not a system of easy answers. It is a system that every step of the way resists over-simplicity. Like Christ himself, it resists a tell-me-exactly-where-in-the-rule-book-I-can-find-instructions-for-exactly-what-I-should-think-or-do-in-exactly-this-situation kind of thinking.

Yes, Christian thought contains absolutes. Yes, it makes extreme claims about reality. But significantly, it’s supremely good at making everyone—and I do mean everyone—uncomfortable at some point.

I’d expect nothing less of a system that purports to reveal the ultimate, eternal truths of the universe.

Weird Fiction aficionados will likely think this pairing a little simplistic—Jesus’ hyperbolic sayings, parables, his eye-popping, instructive metaphors paired with tales of the weird. But it’s not so much that Jesus told “weird” stories, per se. Rather, it’s that his whole program often used the same method as weird fiction—the art of unsettling, for the purpose of enlightening.

Aficionados might also object that one hallmark of the weird is its reliance on the idea of an ultimately inexplicable universe, governed by forces that are themselves inexplicable, unknowable. Isn’t that a far cry from classical Christianity?

And yet you can see, even here, a clear similarity: the belief in some sort of transcendent reality.

Linger over the word “transcendent” for a moment. It’s defined in various places as: “being beyond comprehension,” or “beyond or above the range of normal human experience,” or “existing apart from, and not subject to, the limitations of the material universe.”

I sense a shared ingredient.

Does Christianity actually contain within it the concept of things beyond definition? Beyond the grip of finite minds?

Indeed.

The system of Christian thought, as held out in Christian Scripture, is immeasurably and repeatedly comfortable with precisely this kind of mystery, with paradox, with inexplicable but nonetheless actual realities—realities that can’t be encompassed by a syllogism. Straining against the boundary of human understanding, many of these realities challenge severe logicians and sloppy Derridean relativists alike.

Classical Christianity embraces irresolvable tension between seemingly incompatible truths. The Trinity, for example. Ponder the idea of a single God in three Persons. Not one person who wears three hats. Not three separate divine beings who just share the same house. No. One God. Three persons. And the two natures of Christ. The Incarnation. The sovereignty of God and human will. No stuffing these concepts into neat categorical boxes.

However, even though Christianity doesn’t profess to resolve all tension between seemingly opposed realities—so that one might win every debate simply by knowing the right formulas—it is wholly distinct from relativism. Christianity simultaneously refrains from sugarcoating, or explaining away, difficult realities, and freely confesses the limitations of human understanding. Along with its propensity to shock—as we’ve seen already—this too is a quintessential hallmark of the weird.

Many people resist weird fiction for the same reason others resist Christianity. We are rational beings. When things make perfect sense, when they fit into some wholly graspable formula, it comforts us. When faced with ideas that don’t do this, we get extremely uneasy. But I think most of us also carry a natural sense of some reality that transcends us, some reality that must perhaps always transcend us. It’s this sense that both weird fiction and Christian thought uniquely tap into.

One of the more fascinating things about the Christian worldview is this embrace of both the knowable and the transcendent, an embrace which is itself mysterious. Even more fascinating is that this mystery is tangibly manifested in the very fount of the system. Jesus was called by the Apostle John, and many others, the Word (in Greek, the Logos), the same term ancient philosophers used to denote the Organizing Principle of the Universe, the eminently logical. He is also called, “light of the world,” one who was “in the beginning with God,” who “was God,” and “without [whom] was not anything made that was made.” He’s both utterly transcendent—”He upholds the universe by the word of his power”—and eminently knowable—”We have seen his glory;” he walked among us; he ate with us; he suffered with us. He died . . . just like us.

The main point here is twofold: 1) Perhaps we Christians need not eschew an insightful, honest, surprisingly like-minded genre because its packaging puts us off; and 2) Perhaps readers and writers of the weird may find themselves surprised—shocked?—at having so much in common with this ancient system of God-worship.

***

Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University, the University of Houston-Downtown, and for Writers in the Schools. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.

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  1. As a Romanticist, I;ve long had a fascination with the Gothic (and I am intrigued by the tradition of the “weird”) – but also as a Christian, I do not find many peers with the same overlap in interests! This was great – thanks so much, Garett.No wonder this is one of my favourite go to sites :)

  2. Garret Johnson says:

    Thank you too, Carolyn. I’m glad it resonated with you. Yes, people with such mixed interests aren’t exactly raining down from the sky (though I do have the pleasure of working with several!). It’s always great to cross paths (even virtual) with someone else who shares the same unexpected fascinations.

    By the way, your site is wonderful! I just noticed the partial overlap between your most recent post and this one. Great content, on the site as a whole! (A new place for me, and hopefully other Hieropraxis readers, to visit.)

    http://www.pressingsave.com/

  3. Darkhill says:

    Hello Garret,

    Thank you for your interesting perspective on theology and culture. At the ladies’ book club I convinced them to read O’Connor’s Wiseblood. Unfortunately they found it odd. We then watched the John Houston film version. One lady walked out. Gonga the gorilla didn’t help. Anyway, I like O’Connor, but over the years I have found attempts to theologize culture misunderstood by the congregations. I was involved in story-telling for ten years and when I tried to use it I was accused of “not preaching the word”. I wanted to be known as “the story-tell’in preacher” but no go. We had a fellow in town who was known as a singing preacher. If he sang “How Great Thou Art” on Sundays he was considered wonderful. I think there is a bias in favor of music in the church. Music? One is a cool Christian. Painting? Story-telling? Acceptable but don’t go too far.

    Have a good day and keep writing.

  4. Garret Johnson says:

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughts on this, Darkhill.

    Yes it can be notoriously difficult to convince some audiences of the relevance of non-Christian art and culture to Christian thinking. I’ve had really similar experiences to the ones you describe (yeah, Gonga the gorilla will certainly put some people off). But I suppose all we can do is keep pointing out similarities, keep drawing parallels, keep trying to reveal how so much about the literature and culture outside our own circles are not only relevant to the Christian life but can even aid in its development. Another benefit of such activity is how it starts dialogue with those who don’t already think like us (which, you might say, is one of our central reasons for being, period). Even Paul related eternal truths of God to a crowd by quoting ‘pagan’ poets in Acts. Thanks so much for your comments. Always great to receive encouragement from like minds.

    Let’s keep spreading the ideas.

    Garret

  5. “But I think most of us also carry a natural sense of some reality that transcends us, some reality that must perhaps always transcend us.”

    I think you are right, and I think it is expressed in Ecclesiastes “He has set eternity in the hearts of men, and yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecc. 3:11)

    I’ve always enjoyed “weird” fiction, and I really appreciate this way to connect it with the Christian worldview.

  6. Garret Johnson says:

    Thanks so much for the comment, Amanda,

    That passage from Ecclesiastes is actually the PERFECT expression of this idea that we all posses a sense of the transcendent, even if we don’t recognize it as being from (or pointing to) God. Also, that verse happens to encapsulate one of the main ideas of the whole post, that Weird Fiction and Christian Thought share a profoundly significant ingredient: paradox (“the hearts of men” all recognize the transcendent, yet in some ways “they cannot fathom” it).

    Great, great connection. I’ll remember that verse in relation to this idea if I write more on it in the future.

    Garret

  7. Garret, thanks much for writing this. You’ve clarified some questions I’ve had in my role as the editor of a pulp fiction podcast (protectingprojectpulp.com) that depends heavily on old issues of Weird Tales for stories. I think this essay will prove influential in my own fiction writing as well.

    If you ever start a Christian Weird Fiction writing group, let me know!

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Fredosphere,

      I’m glad this was useful to you as both an editor and writer. Thanks so much for the comment. And by the way, I LOVE the (protectingprojectpulp.com) website! I’m glad you mentioned it. I’ll be downloading those podcasts to listen to in my car. I’ve been wondering if just such a thing existed (a source for short classic-pulp audio), and you’ve led me right to it! Many thanks for the work you’re doing there.

      And if I do start a Christian Weird Fiction writing group, I’ll certainly let you know. Sounds like a great idea actually.

      (As a side note, I notice your mention of the “call to adventure” in the description of Protecting Project Pulp…I’ve written on that, here, as well. Might find it interesting: (http://www.hieropraxis.com/2012/11/on-adventure/)

      Cheers,
      Garret

  8. It’s wonderful to find someone who is as fascinated by this subject as I am! I started reading Lovecraft seriously while at Wheaton College, and exploring the weird fiction tradition through the writers mentioned in his “Supernatural Horror in Fiction” essay. At the same time I was taking classes in theology, fiction, and literary imagination from Christian perspectives. Working out that combination has been very important to me ever since.

    One other interesting point of contact that you didn’t mention: the description of prophetic visions, and especially visions of angels in the Bible. Apparently, the normal fallen-human response to seeing angels is a full-on cosmic horror freakout episode. There’s a reason why the angels always seem to start with, “Don’t be afraid.” After Ezekiel saw the Throne of God, he was apparently too freaked out to do anything for a week.

    So one might say that weird horror is the natural first response to “unmediated transcendental experience”, or whatever you might call it.

    • Hi Ethan,

      Always great to chat with a fellow fan of that rare confluence of ideas. Thanks for the comment! I’m totally with you on how this idea rubs up against transcendent terror (of a kind) invoked by many of the prophetic visions (Isaiah’s “Woe is me! I am ruined”). Consider too various theophanies of the OT (the burning bush; the rumblings of Mt. Sinai; etc). Alas, I could have probably written a book on this (I would love, in fact, when time permits to do just that).

      Actually, now that I think about it, I believe I did address that idea in another post (or somewhere in the comments) that was much more directly about this idea of “terror.” It was called “HP Lovecraft and Christian Thought.” Here’s the link: http://www.hieropraxis.com/2012/10/hp-lovecraft-and-christian-thought/

      Astute observations. Thanks for bringing them up, here! The “unmediated transcendental experience” descriptor is a good one.

      Given your comments, you might also like this site: http://www.teemingbrain.com/2010/08/17/lovecraft-christian-horror-and-weird-fiction/

      They’ve taken up the very subject you mention.

      Cheers,
      Garret

    • Holly Ordway says:

      I have to say, “Apparently, the normal fallen-human response to seeing angels is a full-on cosmic horror freakout episode” absolutely made my day.

      Seriously, why would angels announce ‘Do not fear!” if they looked like living Precious Moments figurines?

      That’s one of the (many!) things CS Lewis does really well in the Ransom trilogy: he makes angels terrifying and unsettling again.

  9. Mark Samuels says:

    Garrett

    I very much appreciated your excellent analysis.

    The field of weird fiction isn’t entirely devoid of orthodox Christians, though I readily admit we seem to be a minority!

    Having appeared in the Jeff Vandermeer anthology THE WEIRD with my story “The White Hands”, I thought you might be interested in an article I had up fairly recently on the Teeming Brain (a website I see with which I see you’re already familiar).

    http://www.teemingbrain.com/2014/05/26/beyond-the-beautiful-darkness-mark-samuels-on-atheism-christianity-weird-horror-and-the-road-out-of-hell/#more-15299

    It details my conversion to Catholicism back in 1997 in the light of a weird fiction background.

    Mark S.

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Mark,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad the sentiments resonated with you!

      After seeing your comment, the first thing I did was pull my anthology of THE WEIRD from my shelf and read “The White Hands”.

      It was EXCELLENT.

      Jeff VanderMeer’s intro described it well. Such a balanced mix of self-referentiality and straight up story. The perfect Weird tale.

      I’ll have to read your article at the Teeming Brain, next. Looks fascinating. I’ll let you know what I think, over there. (You’re right, I am familiar with the place; they’ve graciously had me over for tea a time or two. Good work they do.)

      Cheers,
      Garret

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